Global democracy has not fared well in the past five years. While the Arab uprisings have led to civil war and military rule, countries like Turkey, Russia and Venezuela are veering towards authoritarian rule. The world’s rising power, China, has found success with a one-party state.
These developments seem to question the optimism of proponents of liberal democracy following the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 – most famously that of Francis Fukuyama.
Almost exactly 25 years ago, the U.S. political scientist published an infamous essay titled “The End of History?” in which he declared the final triumph of liberal democracy. In his own words:
“I argued that History (in the grand philosophical sense) was turning out very differently from what thinkers on the left had imagined. The process of economic and political modernization was leading not to communism, as the Marxists had asserted and the Soviet Union had avowed, but to some form of liberal democracy and a market economy. History, I wrote, appeared to culminate in liberty: elected governments, individual rights, an economic system in which capital and labor circulated with relatively modest state oversight.”
Now Fukuyama has published an essay in The Wall Street Journal revisiting his initial argument. And, perhaps not surprisingly, he finds that he was right and democracy still stands largely uncontested.
There may still be authoritarian regimes and some democracies are crumbling, but decades ago things were much worse, he argues. More importantly, he writes:
“In the realm of ideas, moreover, liberal democracy still doesn’t have any real competitors. Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the ayatollahs’ Iran pay homage to democratic ideals even as they trample them in practice. Why else bother to hold sham referendums on “self-determination” in eastern Ukraine? Some radicals in the Middle East may dream of restoring an Islamist caliphate, but this isn’t the choice of the vast majority of people living in Muslim countries.”
China’s model isn’t a real alternative either, according to Fukuyama, because its cleptocratic tendencies will inevitably cause discontent. Since liberal democracy still has no ideological rival on a global scale, Fukuyama concludes that his “end of history” hypothesis still stands.
But does it? A different look at the past centuries and millennia suggests that the spread of liberal democracy may be historical accident, rather than the culmination of history, and could be reversed sooner than we may like.
In the paragraphs below I will argue that the largely uncontested spread of democracy is the result of an unprecedented period of peace in large parts of the world. Once the global powers go to war again, as they seem likely to do at some point, democracy could easily find itself on the defensive.
Historically, democracies have gone in decline not because other political models offered a higher quality of life, but because authoritarianism proved to be more efficient at warfare.
The ancient Athenian democracy collapsed because the strictly hierarchical model of Sparta was better at mobilizing resources for war, beating Athens in the Peleponnesian War and ending its hegemony. Rome’s patrician republic fell and made way for monarchy because its collective leadership model was inferior in warfare to Julius Caesar’s charismatic dictatorship.
There is a reason why all the world’s armies have hierarchical leaderships under the dictatorship of a general, rather than a democratic decision-making process: authoritarianism and coercion are simply better at making people risk their lives and kill others, as well as mobilizing resources in wartime.
World War II is another prime example. The war is generally regarded as a victory for democracy, but that is only partially true. Nazi Germany army was far superior than that of similarly sized France and had the Western world on the brink of defeat, largely because of a level of propaganda, coercion and national mobilization only possible under authoritarian rule. Moreover, it was defeated first and foremost by the Soviet Union, another state that used its authoritarian model and tremendous coercion to secure victory.
As long as countries are peaceful and compete only on an economic stage, liberal democracy may not have any serious ideological rivals. But history shows that during times of prolonged warfare authoritarian regimes tend to have an advantage, while democracies go in decline.
This brings me back to the present and Fukuyama’s argument. The triumph of liberal democracy after 1989 has coincided with the longest period of peace between major world powers in the past centuries.
Some political scientists argue that this period of peace is the results of the spread of liberal democracy, since prosperous democracies are less likely to go to war with each other. But this is at best part of the explanation.
In essence, peace between major powers has been so long lasting because of war weariness after World War II (the founding of the EU is the most notable example), because of the threat of mutual assured destruction through nuclear bombs and because of U.S. hegemony in large parts of the world until 1989 and virtually everywhere after.
But as China’s military and economic rise threatens U.S. hegemony, war between world powers has suddenly become a possibility again – albeit a distant one. Consider the territorial disputes in the East China, where China has vowed to assert its claims and the U.S. has vowed to defend its ally Japan.
There seems to be a growing number of historians and political scientists who argue that a third world war is becoming increasingly likely.
If war does break out between superpowers, history shows that democracy may well lose its global, ideological edge in the face of ruthless authoritarian militarism. What if an authoritarian China proves exceptionally adept at mobilizing resources for war, defeating Japan as easily as Nazi Germany defeated France in 1940? Other countries will get the message, and may conclude that they have to revert to authoritarian methods themselves if they want to survive in a military struggle.
This scenario is of course speculation, and it may well be that global democracy can survive another world war. But my point is that we need to consider the exceptional circumstances under which democracy has triumphed post-1989, and that these circumstances can change from one day to another. It has happened before.